Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Grow Your Own Food or Eat "Lemons"

More Chinese people are growing their own food without pesticides and chemical fertilizer because that's the only way to avoid eating unwanted chemicals.

Many rural families have a small garden plot where they grow vegetables for their own family's consumption using no chemical pesticides and applying only manure as fertilizer. One grandmother in Jilin grows greens, potatoes, onions, fruit trees and keeps chickens that eat only rice bran, corn meal, wild grass and insects. She explains that the garden plot is her family's "protection area" where she can grow food for her six-year-old grandson and other family members that they know is free of toxic chemicals. She knows that neighboring farmers make heavy use of dangerous pesticides and there is no guarantee that food bought in the market is safe to eat.

Another farmer explains that vegetables grown with chemical fertilizer have no taste. Chickens raised on commercial feed lack their traditional flavor.

Even many urban people are raising their own vegetables and chickens, using open spaces around their apartment buildings or renting a garden plot in the countryside.

The news media are calling this the "new private plot" phenomenon (“新自留地”现象). Similar to the situation under collective agriculture, today's Chinese farmers use different techniques on their private plots and the commercial fields.

When China's farmland was put under collective ownership in the 1950s, rural families were allowed to retain a small private garden plot (自留地) they could use to grow their own food and fodder for their livestock. Big fields where grain and other commercial crops were grown were managed as collective land. Of course, farmers gave the most attention to their private plots and slacked off on the big collective fields.

After economic reforms in 1978, the large fields were divided up and contracted out to families to grow grain or other crops on a commercial basis--these commercial fields are known as their contracted land (承包地). The private plot era faded away with the demise of collective agriculture, but food safety concerns have resurrected the dual management phenomenon.
Small fenced family vegetable plots in the foreground; 
contracted land (rice fields) are in the background.

The private plot-commercial field duality has reappeared as food safety and health concerns have become more acute. Farmers withhold chemicals from their private plots which are reserved for their own family's food, but they use chemicals freely on their commercial fields since this produce will be eaten by someone else. A farmer in Shandong explains that he has to use chemicals on his commercial crops; otherwise the produce will be eaten by insects or fail to grow.

China's market for food is becoming a classic "market for lemons" as described in Economist George Akerlof's classic 1970 article. When buyers have incomplete information about the quality of products they are buying, good quality products tend to disappear from the market. The market becomes dominated by "lemons" (i.e. used cars that sellers know are apt to break down but buyers are unable to discern). There is no means of reliably verifying the safety of food sold in China's market, so "lemons" with toxic chemicals dominate while good quality food is produced at home and never enters the market.

Farmers can grow organic food without toxic chemicals and sell it at a premium to consumers who want to avoid the toxins. However, "cheating" is so rampant and certifications so unreliable that consumers can't trust food labeled as "organic" in the market. If they want organic food they have to grow it themselves or get it from a friend or family member they can trust.

The collapse of trust in China is undermining the fundamentals that are needed for an economy to function.


dylanjones said...

Thanks for this insight. To what extent do you think/observe that producers in other agriculture sectors in China (I'm thinking especially of dairy) also engage in this practice?

dimsums said...

I have heard similar anecdotes regarding pork.
Classic case is "toxic ginger" in the press a few months ago where farmers in Shandong sent bad ginger to be sold in other regions because everyone locally knew it had toxic pesticides.
There are other posts here about the mix of subterfuge and ignorance in dairy and poultry.